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The Green Chemistry Tipping Point

It seems to have happened overnight. All of a sudden, everyone is talking about sustainability. Everyone is attempting to “go green!”  You turn on the radio or the television and within ten minutes you hear someone talking about the environment. Open the newspaper, read pretty much any magazine, and there it is; green concerns, environmental awareness.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I started to talk about green chemistry, I felt like something of an outsider, a passionate weirdo with a group of allies and friends roaming the world with visions of change and hopes of a sustainable future through environmentally responsible science.

It seems that in the blink of the eyes, all of a sudden we are mainstream! We have LEED certified buildings and Presidential Green Chemistry Awards. The tangible presence of the activist community in the world as described by Paul Hawken in his latest book “Blessed Unrest,” seems to have revealed itself in every corner of the communicating society.

Scientific organizations, multi-national corporations, university campuses, and governmental communities are now seeking, promoting or touting “sustainable solutions” to nearly every aspect of human endeavor. It has become impossible for any one individual to keep track of it all. We should all welcome this transformation, it is not only the moral and ethically correct thing to do, but it is likely that developments in sustainable technologies will create opportunities for existing and developing economies.

So now that the tipping point is upon us, and we rush forward with creative new technologies and solutions, it seems appropriate to interject at least a word of caution. This is not to dampen any enthusiasm, or suggest slowing any progress, but when a claim is made that a new technology is “green” or “sustainable,” how do we actually know that it is? Society’s eyes, expectations and hopes are now focused on the scientists and engineers attempting to invent and innovate these new solutions. We must make sure that we are credible in our claims.

This isn’t as easy as it should be. The education system in place for scientists has not really kept up with this “sustainability movement.”  In 2008, very few, if any graduate or undergraduate programs in materials science and chemistry require students to learn anything about mechanistic toxicology or environmental impacts. Even though worldwide regulatory systems and activist coalitions have changed the way of doing business in R&D labs and manufacturing floors with respect to human health and the environment, our colleges and universities have not yet changed their curricula. So how will people developing, people acquiring and consumers using technologies know if the technologies are truly green or sustainable?

The best way to validate a technology’s impact on human health and the environment is to focus at the molecular level using the principles of green chemistry. Only by employing the tools of science and innovation can we credibly develop, promote and use green technologies.  While scientists and engineers continue to push at the frontiers, it is critical that we focus on legitimate and defensible claims of environmental benefit.

The Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry
(Paul Anastas and John Warner, “Green Chemistry Theory and Practice” 1998, Oxford University Press.)
1. Prevention.  It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed

2. Atom Economy. Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.

3. Less Hazardous Chemical Synthesis. Whenever practicable, synthetic methodologies should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment.

4. Designing Safer Chemicals.  Chemical products should be designed to preserve efficacy of the function while reducing toxicity.

5. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries. The use of auxiliary substances (solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary whenever possible and, when used, innocuous.

6. Design for Energy Efficiency.  Energy requirements should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized.  Synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.

7. Use of Renewable Feedstocks.  A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practical.

8. Reduce Derivatives. Unnecessary derivatization (blocking group, protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be avoided whenever possible .

9. Catalysis. Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

10. Design for Degradation. Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they do not persist in the environment and instead break down into innocuous degradation products.

11. Real-time Analysis for Pollution Prevention. Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

12. Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention. Substance and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen so as to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.

John C. Warner is President and Chief Technology Officer of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

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One thought on “The Green Chemistry Tipping Point

  1. Increasingly, companies are turning to Cradle to Cradle (SM) Certification for products, as a means of showing significant improvements in the “impact on human health and the environment … at the molecular level”… as noted in the article. In addition, material reutilization, energy, water and social considerations are taken into account.

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